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How to Talk To and Handle My New Puppy

By: Dr. Nicholas Dodman

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One thing you have to remember in any dealings with puppies, especially very young ones in the two to four-month window of age, is that they are very impressionable.

In the first few months of their lives you can set them up for success or failure based on your interactions with them and your ability to guard them against psychological trauma. If you care for them when they need care, have reasonable expectations for them, and set limits of acceptable behavior and protect them from adversity, all should be well.

Raising puppies properly is an active process that requires you to understand how they might interpret your behavior toward them, including how you address them and how you handle them. If we largely ignore them, rarely speak to them, and hardly ever pet or touch them, they may grow up to be overly needy or withdrawn. On the other hand, if we burble at pups constantly, and pinch and prod them as if they were produce in a grocery store, that too can have negative consequences. Pups so treated become desensitized to human speech and averse to handling, and this can lead to problems down the road.

It is far better to meter speech and handle the pup in a way that it appreciates, so that it comes to enjoy human company, understands our utterances, and appreciates petting and physical contact.

The Spoken Word

Most people make the mistake of assuming that pups understand every word we say. This is certainly not the case and, for them, even when properly educated, English is a second language. Sure they will understand something from the tone in which a sentence or monologue is delivered, but the syntax, verbiage, and sentence structure are beyond their comprehension. A good analogy is to imagine finding yourself in downtown Shanghai without knowing a word of Chinese. That's what it must be like for a new pup finding itself airlifted from its nest into a new owner's home and being surrounded by a veritable babble of voices. Of course, a non-Chinese speaking person in downtown Shanghai understands the tone of address. The person would understand whether the person addressing him was angry or agitated, calm or perturbed, attempting to communicate or attempting to shun. But that's about as far as the understanding would go. The same sort of understanding applies to new puppies in homes with new owners. With this in mind, it is important to keep the tone of your address to a new pup relatively consistent and soothing. Remember, you're talking to a baby. Two reasonable deviations from "baby banter" that the pup will understand are sing-song praising tones and deeper, gruffer admonishment tones. Of course, most communications should be spoken in neutral tones, and most of the balance should be in the high sing-song praise category. Admonishments should be used sparingly, used when they are due, and should be brief but firm.

Up to now, all we've talked about is communication tones, which are extremely important both for puppies and adult dogs. However, words will also come to mean things to puppies as they grow up. It's a good idea right from the get go to use certain words to cue key behaviors. In general, the words should be spoken in splendid isolation so as not to become confused in sentence structure. You wouldn't ask a puppy to sit, for example, by positioning the word sit in the middle of a full sentence. This is a sure way to cause confusion. Rather, the word sit should be said on its own in a matter of fact neutral tone and then the pup should be assisted into a sitting position using a lure or manual positioning technique. Likewise the word down and come can be added to the pup's repertoire as useful commands that, in the future, can be used to help the pup avoid trouble. The pup's vocabulary can be built upon as it advances in age until the spoken word can be a useful means of communication. Dogs can learn hundreds of words, perhaps five hundred to a thousand, but what they never really understand is language, so don't expect too much of them in this respect. With youngsters for sure, and into adulthood too, when the spoken word is followed by the requisite behavior, whether you have to assist the pup in this respect or not, a reward of some sort should follow – always.

Hands on Approach to Handling

Touching and handling young pups, if performed correctly, is certainly a pleasure for the pup and for the owner. But actually it's even more important for the pup, because our handling them, like their mother's grooming, leads to better bonding and accelerated development. Proper handling then is a must if pups are to develop optimally and strike up the best possible relationships with people. But how should handling be conducted? Looking at the two extremes, no handling is bad news for the pup while rough or excessive handling can be equally detrimental. The goal is to find something in between, to be able to handle and pet the pup in a way that it appreciates, and not to short change it of this valued tactile attention while not smothering it in overly indulgent, perhaps unwanted petting sessions.

There are two different approaches to petting and handling. One I refer to as in situ where the owner reduces themselves to the pup's level and pets them where they lie. The other, Harry Potter's Wingardium Leviosa approach, is to lift the pup up and cradle it in your arms while petting it. Both approaches work well, but if the pup is lifted up it should be lifted up properly. This means scooping it up from beneath and holding it securely, but not tightly, in such a way that it knows there is no chance of it falling. Whether using the in situ or Leviosa approach, petting should be performed in a way that the pup will appreciate, not like our grannies did to us when we were young, roughing up our hair and pinching our cheeks. Rather the pup should be petted along the side of its face and chest, petting in the same direction the hair grows and speaking in soothing tones. Whenever handling or petting a pup, pay close attention to its body language and affect. It is not hard to tell whether a pup is appreciating your attentions or whether it is trying to resist. Appreciation is good, resistance is not, and it indicates that its time to stop. If you start handling or petting a pup when it requests you will not be engaging in over-petting or over-handling. Read the dog is the message here. Human adults are not too bad at understanding puppy cues, but children are often unaware what the puppy is trying to tell them. It is important for adults to properly supervise the interaction of children and puppies if supposedly enjoyable handling and petting sessions are to be viewed as positive experiences by the pup.

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